Jul 21, 2022 - News

Efforts to preserve Pennsylvania's African American cemeteries to get boost

A blue historical marker stands outside the Bethel Burying Grounds in Philadelphia's Queen Village neighborhood.
The historic Bethel Burying Grounds in Philadelphia's Queen Village neighborhood, where more than 5,000 African Americans are estimated to be buried. Photo: Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images

A statewide program will soon be developed to preserve and protect African American cemeteries in Pennsylvania, thanks in part to a $50,000 grant from a national cultural preservation group.

Driving the news: Preservation Pennsylvania was among 33 sites and organizations awarded a share of the $3 million in funding the National Trust for Historic Preservation's African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund announced this week.

  • The grants aim to protect sites important to African American history, including Emmett Till's house in Chicago and Detroit's Blue Bird Inn, the birthplace of bebop jazz.

Why it matters: African American cemeteries have been abandoned, destroyed or disregarded for centuries, leaving many descendants without spaces to memorialize or visit their loved ones.

  • The more than 100 sites identified across Pennsylvania are "threatened by underfunding, development and changing demographics," Preservation Pennsylvania wrote in a statement.

State of play: The Harrisburg-based nonprofit dedicated to preserving historic places is still in the planning stages. But the group said the new grant will go toward creating a network to provide direct support to African American cemeteries and burial grounds statewide.

  • The network will also offer training and technical assistance to cemetery stewards.

Between the lines: The work to preserve this history is often complicated by a lack of records and issues navigating the legal system.

  • Terry Buckalew has been researching and documenting African American burial sites in Philadelphia since 2010. He's helped identify 2,488 of the 5,000 African Americans believed to be interred at the Bethel Burying Grounds, a small cemetery in Queen Village that Mother Bethel A.M.E Church sold to the city in 1889.
  • "Each graveyard, each cemetery has its own unique set of problems," Buckalew told Axios. "Is it city owned? Is it privately owned? A lot of time, nobody knows who owns it."

Buckalew told Axios he wants Preservation Pennsylvania to use the grant money to provide legal assistance to community organizers fighting to preserve burial sites, particularly those threatened by development projects.

  • He also said the nonprofit should hold public meetings across the state so that residents can learn about the efforts and ask questions.

What they're saying: Brent Leggs, the fund's executive director, told Axios the creation of the statewide cemeteries program will equip "communities and descendants with the resources to identify, document and steward these hallowed grounds into the future."

  • Gov. Tom Wolf's spokesperson Elizabeth Rementer said in a statement to Axios that the office is "extremely pleased" that the project is receiving this funding, calling the work "critical to preserving these important historic community spaces."

What's ahead: A public art project to memorialize the Bethel Burying Grounds is underway. But the city's Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy told Axios that it won't be finished by next summer as anticipated due to pandemic delays, staffing changes at the office and the artist finalizing the team to execute the memorial.

  • The office didn't offer a timeline for completing the project.
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